First Published March 2016
HEART OF A POET, VOICE OF A LEADER
As you’ll all know, we’ve just had a general election. And possibly, just the first of the year, depending on what happens over the next few weeks and months. Looking back over all of the coverage, be it on tv, radio or in print, I can’t remember the arts having been mentioned in any substantive or passionate way by any candidate from any party, in any context. Now granted, there are many issues of a more serious and pressing nature which should rightly and justifiably be the main sources of concern for our legislators. But I believe it’s also important to acknowledge and respect the vital role the arts has always played in our country’s past,continues to play in our present, and should play in our future, also.
Great songwriting can come from both the art of the craft, and from the heart of the writer. You can hear how a great song has been crafted together. But when it comes from the heart of the writer, you know because that’s where you feel it, too. Right in your heart. Johnny Duhan, in my opinion, is possibly the finest ‘heart-writer’ of songs that Ireland has ever known. With the heart of a poet, Johnny speaks with the voice of a leader, especially when it comes to the subject of radio airplay for Irish artists in Ireland. I had the pleasure of chatting with Johnny again recently, and I put it to him that my observations around the general election may be part of the reason why so few Irish artists actually get airplay in Ireland? That the arts, although highly praised by official Ireland, in reality, are all too often much overlooked?
“Tony, great first question. For the past few days I’ve been on tenterhooks while Willie Penrose was confined to his tomb-like position of not knowing if he was going to make it back from the dead and gain his place in the Dail. Though I have no affiliation with the Labour Party, I have a deep respect for Willie, as he has been totally behind the campaign to achieve legislative change to introduce a quota of Irish music for Irish radio. Just before Christmas, Willie managed to get a private members Bill seeking to introduce legislation to enact an amendment to the Broadcasting Act through the first stage of the Dail, with the support of Francis Fitzgerald. Hopefully, when this Bill comes up for discussion in the Dail at the next stage, it will be successful. Willie has generously acknowledged that a series of articles that I wrote for the Sunday Independent motivated him to take up this just cause.”
Johnny has been part of a small group who have been lobbying for change on this matter for some time now. When he thinks of the many short and long-term benefits of having more Irish artists on the radio, benefits which seem so obvious, how does he deal with the frustration of having to be in a fight that shouldn’t have to happen at all?
“How do I feel about the present state of Irish broadcasting? In a word: FRUSTRATED. A quota set in legislation is essential. In France, where they’ve had a quota for the past 30 years, the French government not only insist that radio stations play 40% French music, but they also support French musicians in lots of other ways, including financial support. It’s one of the great scandals of our time that successive Irish governments have completely ignored Irish musicians and Irish music, of all categories. But hopefully, when Willie Penrose’s Bill comes up for discussion in the Dail, politicians from all parties and independents will get behind this initiative and make the change that is essential to bring back a steady flow of Irish music of all types back onto our airwaves.”
Johnny decided not to send his ‘Highlights’ album to independent stations in Ireland and I wondered if that, in some ways, was a sort of a calculated risk, to an extent? In that, if he didn’t send it, someone could make the argument about stations not being able to play what they don’t have. But on the other hand, albums cost money to record, manufacture and distribute. So by not sending that album out, you were actually being more prudent with your finances. I asked Johnny if I was close to correct or way, way off the mark?
“Off the mark this time, Tony. I did it out of a sense of frustration. Most stations have been excluding my work – and the work of countless other Irish musical artists – from their playlist for years anyway. I did send copies to a few long-time supporters in regional stations, and I continue to be grateful to them for playing my songs. But it’s not just about me. It’s about the broad picture which has been tainted for a long time. And on reflection, I see that the main problem is that we need to enact legislation to make a level playing field for all the broadcasters. The aspirational appeal to the stations to be patriotic and support local home talent has failed, mainly because some stations don’t abide by the principle. Some of the Dublin stations don’t care a damn about any form of Irish music. The Broadcasting Authority are hampered because they have no teeth. We need a law to compel all the stations to work by the same rule book. Simple as that.”
Turning towards the more creative side of things for a moment, I asked Johnny if he has a target of a certain number of songs he tries to write each week or month, or even year by year?
“I don’t set myself targets. I totally believe in inspiration. But to activate the inspirational pull, one needs to be constantly digging down the mine of song for the nuggets. I hit a rich seam last year and my new album, ‘Creation’, is the result of that windfall. Right now, I’m working on chapters for part three of my autobiography. ‘There Is A Time’ was part one, ‘After The Dream’, part two (still without a publisher,) and I’ve just started part three.. All this prose writing feeds into my song work, which is my mainstay.”
As Johnny’s career and life go on, does he find, or has he found, that at certain times in both, the sources of his inspiration have changed, in stages almost? Or is it always much more random than that?
“Most definitely [more random]. It took me at least ten years to find my own voice as a songwriter. And I found it through writing prose. After a five or six year career in swinging London with Granny’s Intentions and other bands in the 60’s and 70’s, I found myself lost in the west of Ireland after a recording deal fell through, living on my girlfriend’s parents’ farm. While there I made my first attempt to write my autobiography, going right back to my boyhood. My efforts failed to produce a book but, tapping into my earliest experiences, led me to discover the musical and poetic ore needed to make real songs, as opposed to the pastiche I had been writing up until this time. For each of my other collections, I used the same method of utilising memories of experiences I’d been through – and the musical landscapes associated with the time I’m dealing with – to compose my works. For the past ten years or more, I’ve been delving for spiritual songs with a fresh slant, to try and give melodic voice to the strong religious beliefs that have sustained me over a lifetime. Unfortunately, my timing, as always, seems to be a bit out of kilter with the times we live in [laughs]. But I still plough on, regardless. I have a very strong faith in God and I need, at this time in my life, to articulate this in song, to help others who may be frightened of following the same narrow path. For me, it’s the only path. Plus religion and spirituality, if you look into it, is the source of all the great art work throughout history. Without God, I believe, art would eventually wither and die.”
Most writers, be they songwriters, poets, novelists, or whatever kind, tend to go through periods of time when they find it difficult to write. Has Johnny experienced those moments in his career? And if so, how has he navigated his way through without the panic of thinking, ‘I’ll never write again!’, consuming him?
“Usually after I complete a full song collection, Tony, I feel spent. At such times I’ve been tempted to copy myself and reproduce work based on what I’ve already done. But I’ve always managed to gain courage to avoid this trap. For me, each song is a unique work that can’t be copied or replicated. It may have melodic and poetic resonance of work written at the same time, but that is usually only because the subject matter and the time I’m dealing with come from the same strain. I know that some songwriters deliberately set out to emulate themselves, but that doesn’t interest me.”
It’s 40 years since Johnny got married, the inspiration for his beautiful song, ‘The Voyage’, and it’s 25 years since the great Christy Moore first offered it to Irish hearts. While accepting that we are, or at least should be, always learning, I asked Johnny what came to mind as the most important lesson he’s learned about songwriting in the 25 years since ‘The Voyage’ first set sail?
“In a word: PATIENCE. You have to develop routines of working, which inevitably become very boring. But you must keep at the slog. Keep listening to music that truly resonates for you, and not just music that is fashionable. Keep reading poetry, day in and day out. Poets you really love, not just ones who are famous. And keep singing. I do it for hours and hours every day. And, of course, keep writing, even though the blank page terrifies you! And finally, in my case, keep praying. Because ultimately creation is in the lap of God.”